Georgian peacebuilding expert Julia Kharashvili in the summer camp for war-affected kids of Donbas (August 2016). Photo: digital archive of the camp (DA)
I met Julia in 2016, when being a volunteer in the summer peace camp for Ukrainian kids who either came from the frontline areas of Donbas or had been internally displaced persons. In this camp, the participants not only relaxed but also produced their own first movies. Julia came to Ukraine to talk to the children about the nature of conflicts, from intra- and interpersonal to international, and discuss what is necessary for their resolution.
“We live around the same [Black] Sea,” she told her young Ukrainian listeners at the first day of her training. “So we are almost neighbors, who have experienced a lot of similar things, earlier we and later you. We came here because it’s our duty: because when we were living through hard times, Ukrainian brothers and sisters were standing next to us to the last.
When everything was burning here [in Ukraine], it was burning in our hearts too because we again went through the same things that had happened to us.”
Children’s republic of letters
As a result of the 1991—93 military conflicts and Russian aggression of 2008, a significant part of the territory of Georgia was torn away from it. More than 270 thousand people (6% of the country’s population) became internally displaced persons.
In 1995, Julia Kharashvili was one of the first Georgians who dared to enter the separatist “Republic of Abkhazia.” She went there to negotiate the distribution of a magazine, which would be a forum for children affected by the war, both Georgian and Abkhaz. It was a time when for many Abkhazians, the word “Georgian” meant enemy that must be annihilated. Nevertheless, she appeared before the de facto Abkhazian minister of education as a member of a multinational UNICEF group. And in the upshot, she managed to get permission from the shocked minister to distribute the magazine in Abkhazian schools. It was her first meeting with an official from the “other side,” whose ideological stand completely contradicted her own one. “If you think that you can solve at least one practical question then you need to talk to them,” she believes.
The magazine White Crane, whose name referred to the Japanese symbol of pacifism, was born thanks to the initiative of Canadian UN Volunteer Mr. Greg Hansen. Julia became its first editor, and the correspondents were children themselves. In fact, the magazine functioned as a social network, allowing to establish permanent communication over political and mental barriers long before the wide expansion of the Internet. For twelve years of its existence (although in 1995, the pilot project was designed only for three months) the magazine received nearly 18 thousand letters from the young authors of different ethnicities. They sent to the White Crane their stories, plays, fairy tales, poems, and drawings, which were published on its pages.
“I know that all the children are the same and have the same rights: Georgians and Ossetians,” 10-year-old Zarina from Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, wrote to the magazine. “We all love sun, sea, and ice cream, and we also like to get together.”
Against the stream of mutual hostility
Despite the fact that there are wars, conflicts, that there may be hail and drought, that there are seas separating people, children and youth should be together, they should communicate.
Shortly thereafter, a Bulgarian colleague of Julia, who had experience of tolerance camps for Bulgarians, Turks, and Roma, invited her to bring young Georgians, Abkhazians, and Ossetians to Bulgaria.
“We believed that children should not suffer from conflict but keep living, studying, developing and getting to know each other,” Julia says. “Despite the fact that there are wars, conflicts, that there may be hail and drought, that there are seas separating people, children and youth should be together, they should communicate.”
Turning this dream into reality was a hurdle race. For the first time, and then repeatedly for several years, Julia even had to send personal requests to the commander of Russian border guards, who decided whether to let the Abkhazian children go to Bulgaria. In the Georgian capital, not many people were enthusiastic about having any common project with the recent enemy at first. In 1996, when Julia pioneered with the peace camp’s idea, she was seen almost as an enemy herself, but in a year, the attitude of Georgian officials changed dramatically. Subsequently, these camps were held not only in Bulgaria but also in Ukraine’s Crimea, enjoying the support of UN Volunteers, UN Refugee Agency, Swiss Red Cross, Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, and local Crimean Tatar educators.
A serious problem for the organizers was that children from Abkhazia and South Ossetia needed valid documents to go abroad. Abkhazian separatist authorities refused to take the papers recognizing their participants as the citizens of Georgia. To cope with that, special laissez-passers were designed, which did not specify nationality but were sealed by the Georgian Foreign Ministry. Once Yulia was even demanded that all the Abkhazian participants be inscribed in her passport as a guarantee of their safe travel there and back.
South Ossetian officials, on the contrary, agreed to accept Georgian passports at the time. However, to get them, the children were required to pass a commission that included Georgian IDPs expelled from the separatist-ruled territories during ethnic cleansings. Sometimes the commission asked Ossetian teenagers what their fathers had been doing in the wartime and demanded that they sign papers in Georgian, although many of those children did not know the Georgian alphabet.
A place to meet and respect each other
In one of the camps, a Georgian girl realized from a conversation with an Abkhazian lad that he was living in the apartment abandoned by her family.
Another time, Julia’s husband recognized in the attendant of the Abkhazian group a former serviceman who had broken into his own house during the war and looked there for profits. Now, a few years after the incident, they had something in common: a concern for children—and they managed to establish a cooperative relationship.
The first peace camps were a kind of adventure with an unpredictable outcome. Children representing different communities, not only Georgians, Abkhazians, and Ossetians but also Armenians and Azerbaijanis who survived another bloody conflict were preparing to meet with each other for long months. Despite the painstaking preparations, some scandals did occur when, for example, a Georgian girl simply started to read a poem about her longing for her native Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia.
One Azerbaijani participant confessed that he was amazed by the gap between the negative stereotype of Armenians, to which he had been accustomed in his country, and the real experience of communication with Armenian peers.
One Azerbaijani participant confessed to Julia that he was amazed by the gap between the negative stereotype of Armenians, to which he had been accustomed in his country, and the real experience of communication with Armenian peers. Georgian Nino was initially shy to talk to Abkhazian children she met in Bulgaria but by the day of parting, she had good friends among them. Some of those children, like she, had lost their fathers because of the war, and sharing painful experiences with each other worked for them as therapy.
“People starting up a war often state they do so for our future,” noted a 14-year-old girl in Crimea-based camp in 2002. “Why do they not ask us? We need peace more than anyone else.”
Tough dialogue is necessary
Fourteen years later, in summer 2016, when both Crimea and Donbas were under Russian occupation, the young participants of the Ukrainian peace camp were also united in their rejection of war they had personally experienced.
We need to understand where this conflict came from and where it might hide when we declare officially that we are united again.
“You should definitely talk over them,” she replied, “otherwise the conflict will never be solved. Either you need to settle it: one thinks like that and another thinks differently but it does not prevent you from living in one country, or one should try to convince another. Cooperation means, among other things, that I respect your interest, and you respect mine. […]
When something happens inside one nation, one country, it is very important that the landmark of reconciliation is clear to the people: why it’s necessary and how to achieve it. It’s not just that we say: ‘that’s all, we are not fighting anymore, we’ll be reconciled.’ This would be unstable. We need to understand where this conflict came from and where it might hide when we declare officially that we are united again.”
Ignorance is the enemy
I am very proud of our Georgian ancestors but neither I prefer them to be presented like icons nor I want people to be forced to die under those icons.
The lack of knowledge and low information culture is a powerful resource for alienating and inciting hostility by propaganda means, Julia reminds. Education and personal experience of communication with “others,” on the contrary, bring about astonishing results. One day her organization together with an NGO from North Caucasus brought Russian students and postgraduates, future civil servants who studied in Pyatigorsk, on the other side of the Great Caucasus range, to Georgia. They were invited to centers for Georgian IDPs, who had been expelled from the territories now de facto occupied by Russia.
“It was worth seeing the faces of these young people! They told us: ‘If we only knew that… We’ve always known that you [Georgians] were the occupiers, that you occupied Abkhazia, and then we liberated it. Now we will tell everybody how it really is! We’ve never known that you have IDPs…’”
What can be an alternative to aggressive disinformation spread in the conflict regions? One option Julia points to is creating a regional platform to support journalists or NGOs not because they call on the local population to return to Georgia or Ukraine but simply because they talk to people and supply them with independent information, which the occupation regime does not want them to have. If the initiatives such as awards for peaceful journalism come from a regional platform, they can be accepted by both parties of a conflict.
To embrace all the compatriots
You have Ukrainians there [in the occupied territory] and Ukrainians here. The people who are there have suffered a lot. They should be pulled out of this situation in every possible way. They should be made sure every day that they are citizens of Ukraine and are important for Ukraine.
“It is necessary to understand those people [living under occupation],” Julia stresses. “Bosnian experience and many other studies show that for an elderly person the loss of home is sometimes worse than the loss of a family member. With the house, one loses everything: all the past, the whole way of life. This should be explained to those who shout: ‘Why are they sitting there?’ You cannot provide them with an equivalent in a new place. If they come here, they feel outcasted. This is a horror for old people, who are later buried among ‘alien’ graves.
It’s very scary to lose your house, even if it is shelled. The person thinks: ‘I worked for it all my life and know that I won’t earn for it the second time.’ In Sukhumi, when the Abkhazian militants were advancing [during the war of 1992—93], Russian troops went behind them, and looters came after all. The latter killed everyone indiscriminately. Physicians and teachers were murdered with particular zealously. But many old people did not leave nonetheless. They died but stayed there.
You have Ukrainians there [in the occupied territory] and Ukrainians here. The people who are there have suffered a lot. They should be pulled out of this situation in every possible way. They should be made sure every day that they are citizens of Ukraine and are important for Ukraine. It does not make a difference if a person, following Russian TV, blames you for her house being destroyed by shelling. In this case, you need to talk to them all the more so and save them and their children. But that’s my personal opinion.”
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Tags: Abkhazia, Caucasus, disinformation, Donbas war (2014-present), Georgia, Help Ukraine, internally displaced persons, occupation, peace camp, peace education, reconciliation, Russia's war against Georgia, South Ossetia, Stories, Ukraine, Ukraine-Georgia relations, Ukrainian children at war, volunteers